Headless Commerce With Drupal
Headless websites have taken the industry by storm, promising to deliver unique brand experiences that enable customer loyalty. Using a headless approach for your project allows you to combine technologies that would normally be siloed due to language or server constraints.
Typically when we talk about a headless Drupal architecture, we are referring to using Drupal for its strength as a content management system (CMS), but using a framework like React or Vue to drive the frontend. This separation of concerns allows your teams to focus on using the tools they know best—ultimately delivering a better product.
The single most important metric in commerce implementations is response time. A website’s overall responsiveness can directly affect the conversion rate and the bottom line. According to a study by Porent in 2019, "The highest e-commerce conversion rates occur between 0 and 2 seconds, spanning an average of 8.11% e-commerce conversion rate at less than 1 second, down to a 2.20% e-commerce conversion rate at a 5 second load time." Let's explore why traditional commerce implementations are so slow and why headless might just be the solution.
Why Use Drupal as a Commerce Platform?
Before we consider the frontend, we need a robust, secure backend platform to deliver our data and business logic. One of the many reasons Drupal is a great candidate for headless, or really any CMS build, is its inherent flexibility and security. Drupal's fieldable entities mean you can structure your CMS to fit your data. Drupal is regularly screened for vulnerabilities and has a robust process to identify and fix security issues. This is especially important in commerce implementations where proprietary data is often pulled from a Product Information Management (PIM) system like Akeneo.
Drupal's true power comes in the form of a massive library of community-contributed and maintained modules. A great example of this is the Drupal Commerce suite maintained by Centarro. Drupal Commerce out-of-the-box provides a robust set of entities and plugins that provide a complete commerce experience. Commerce can be further customized by Contrib modules that provide everything from payment processors (like Stripe or Paypal) to shipping integrations (like UPS or FedEx). Community-contributed modules are the cornerstone of the Drupal platform, and the projects we build make them possible.
Why Is Traditional Commerce Slow?
To alleviate the work the backend has to do to render a page, we've come up with some pretty clever tricks. One example is using Edge Side Includes (ESIs). ESIs work by loading the majority of page content from cache, then replacing specific placeholders with dynamic calls to the server. Since the server doesn't need to render the complete markup, we can often achieve faster load times. Drupal Core offers BigPipe, a module that similarly renders the majority of a page from cache, then replaces placeholders with dynamic content. Oftentimes these solutions come at a high complexity and frequently cause problems related to caching. They also don't work for content that is highly dynamic like category pages with facets and filters.
How Does Headless Help?
When we implement a headless website, we can think of the frontend as less like a web page and more as an application. A properly designed React (or other JS frontend framework) app can be lightweight and heavily cacheable. On initial page load, we load our entire application into working memory. This means that as a user navigates through the site, they are actually interacting with a single-page application that does not require a page reload to show new content.
The reason we can get away with not reloading the page is that data can be asynchronously fed to the frontend. This means that as a user is browsing the site we can preload resources like images and linked pages. When we can run expensive operations independently of a user's browsing experience, we can make website response times appear to be instantaneous—or more within our targeted 0-2 second range.
How Do We Get There?
On the backend, you still need a robust, secure CMS to feed data to the frontend and handle complex or session actions (add to cart/checkout validation). This is where Drupal is an easy choice. One of the easiest ways to feed data to a frontend is via JSON data. Drupal Core provides the JSON:API module which allows you to easily expose your content as filterable JSON objects. This means you can leverage the strength of the Drupal Community while giving your frontend room to prefetch and asynchronously validate data.
Building a world-class commerce website necessitates a world-class toolset, but even more so a world-class team. Drupal has proven to be a reliable CMS capable of delivering highly custom experiences. When this is paired with a well-built frontend, load times become instantaneous, and conversion rates increase!